My name is H, I like to live almost anonymously. I don’t want anybody to be able to remember me, so I can up and go whenever.
Outside my 9-5, I’m a tattoo artist body modification enthusiast. I used to be a strong athlete and could throw a discus. But ask me to take a 20-minute walk now; I’d rather die.
Let me know what you think about my tattoo journey.
I’ve been a tattoo artist for almost two years. It was when I moved to Abuja in the latter half of 2020. A friend was getting tattooed, and I was asked to join him. I went there with plans to get a tattoo but ended up telling the tattoo artist — now my business partner — to teach me. He asked if I was serious, and that’s how it started. I attended classes and watched him tattoo. In a little under a month, he was tattooing someone and had to leave, so he turned to me and went, “You’re up.”
Wow, that was quite bold! How was the first time you felt?
I was so excited that my heart was pounding in my chest. This person didn’t even know what was going on. He just waited for me at the table, and gave me his body. It’s a new learning experience each time. Everybody’s skin and healing levels are different; needles and ink react differently too. It’s very intimate when someone leaves their house and says they want to pay you x amount of money to permanently mark them. This is when my confidence soars.
What was your first tattoo?
It was one Japanese character. I don’t remember what it means now. My partner had done the linework and I was just responsible for shading it in. It was easy to see that fake skin doesn’t compare to real skin. It’s all about confidence and mastery. It’s amazing!
You ever got a bad tattoo?
No. My issues were healing-related. I did not give my customer aftercare instructions. When I tattoo people, I text them every day within the first two weeks, but every time I’d text her to show me the tattoo, she’d weasel her way out of it. After ghosting my for a month she finally texted me to tell me that the tattoo was very painful. I tell people they can’t go to the gym or go swimming until their tattoo heals, and they just do what they want instead. My aftercare instructions were completely ignored because she was using aloe Vera. But at least, it didn’t get infected.
What’s the most common mistake people make after getting a tattoo?
Open wounds such as tattoos can cause itching and irritation. It can be picked at by people, unaware that it will not have the same amount of pigmentation as the rest. They’ll need to come back and get it touched up. Don’t itch new tattoos. For first-timers, you can start with smaller to medium tattoos in less painful areas like the arms. I’ve tattooed someone on the back of her ear, and she said it didn’t hurt. Painful tattoos would be painful for women’s firsts. They would then take it as seriously as pros. No fear, they tell you to tattoo their spine and ribs.
Now, I’m scared of getting a tattoo. What’s the most challenging tattoo you’ve done so far?
Haba, it’s not that bad.
I’ve tattooed over 50 people, so let’s see. I’ll say the person that ghosted me for a month without completing her tattoo. It was supposed to be an interpretation of the Gemini zodiac sign — a huge double-sided head on her back, which must’ve been painful for her — and we could only do one head the first day. She’s come back for a bunch of other tattoos since, but we haven’t gone back to the Gemini one because I want to see how it continues to interact with the ink. So that clients have the full weekend to let their tattoos heal, I prefer to do my sessions over the weekend. But there are so many styles of tattoos I haven’t tried yet.
You like what?
There’s black and gray realism; that’s my partner’s specialisation. There’s blackwork which I’d like to do full time, but I don’t think the average Nigerian is ready to commit to that. I imagine it’s painful, but it always looks cool. Maybe I’ll convince a client to let me give them a free one and see how it goes. The word-of mouth is a big part of tattooing, and good work can lead to referrals.
Does this mean Nigerians aren‘t daring with tattoos?
To be fair, everybody is getting tattoos now, which I love so it’s a 50/50 situation. There are two types of people: people who want to get a lot of tattoos and people who only need one. There are those who want one but don’t want to commit to getting anything over the top, so they go for simple stuff they can easily hide. But not me. I have big tattoos, and when I get asked if it affects my 9-5, I’m like if I walk into a room with my tattoos showing and you decide not to work with me professionally because of them, that’s on you.
What’s your 9-5, and do your tattoos affect it?
I manage a small team of writers for a media company. So, no. I just get stares. I do have a piercing in the middle of my mouth. By the time I smile at you, you’d know what you signed up for. Last year, I was required to serve on an advisory board that included people from the private media, NGOs, the Ministry of Justice and the military. So I tried to hide some of my tattoos because I understand it’s a lot to take in at once. Although I was wearing a short sleeve you could still see my parrot tattoo peeking out. After we were done with the session, people came over to see the tattoo because it’d been distracting them. They asked what it meant, and TBH, I don’t know. It’s just a parrot named Polly.
How many tattoos have you got?
Five of my current tattoos are large. At this point in my life, I don’t want to get a small tattoo. One of the most painful ones I have is one that runs into my armpits. But, my tattoo artist “wisdom” is when the needle stops, the pain stops.
The majority of tattoos that I would like to get are floral. Flowers are my favorite thing. I think my body is a garden, and eventually, when we die, we’ll return to the earth, so why not prepare myself for that, I suppose? I have a tattoo that’s half face, half flower. So when people ask what it represents, I tell them it’s a tribute to the Mayan goddess of tattoos and body modifications. It’s on the back of my right arm, so it helps me to say a little prayer to the goddess — like, madam, I want to tattoo somebody, bless me.
What do you think tattoos should mean?
I don’t. If you like a tattoo design because you think it’s cool, do it. My favourites are the people who get them just for fun. It’s bold to come in and put something on your body that has no bearing on your life. In fact, you’re a hero. When people ask, “what if I change my mind?” I say, “well, you get another one”.
People can change their minds at any time. I don’t do cover-ups, but my partner does. We had a couple visit us to get matching tattoos. A few months later, the other one returned to have it done. Tattooing is fun like that, but it would be more fun if I didn’t have to take it as a business.
Oh? It’s not fun because you’ve had to monetise it?
Not just because I’ve had to monetise it. We’re in Nigeria. The tattoo industry isn’t very big in Nigeria. The majority of the equipment, including ink, and needles we use, must be shipped. Because of this, our costs have to increase to maintain some profit. When clients come in, and we say how much it’ll cost, I feel bad because I don’t want to charge so much, but the country is weird.
What’s your price range like?
It all depends on its size, location and style. A small one would be about ₦20k. I can’t say for the big ones. But the tattoos on my body probably round up to ₦500k. The biggest tattoo I’ve drawn was for a client-turned-friend of ours. It covered half of his back and took us two sessions; it cost about ₦300k. There are some tattooists who charge more than us, but everyone charges differently.
Oh, I’m not judging. Art should not be priced as high as artists believe it should
Exactly. Tattooing can be very taxing on the body. We bend over people’s bodies for hours. We’ve had clients leave the studio at 2 a.m. You have to be awake for a long time and be alert. If I have to tattoo something big, I don’t eat so I don’t get tired. It’s a lot of work. You must soothe anxious or afraid people and address their underlying medical issues. Are you high blood pressure or have you been diagnosed with blood-related problems? You might bleed a little if you’re any of these things.
What’s been your favourite career moment?
I reached out to Adrian Harlow once. She can do coloured tattoos, which can be difficult, so she gave me some tips. Apart from black, I’ve only done red tattoos so far.
Every moment is my favorite. If you want to see me after I have finished a tattoo, then you must be there because I always smile the biggest smile. Sometimes, I’m so jealous of the clients because I wish I had their tattoo on my body. I enjoy returning clients as well. It was nice to have five people get the same tattoo. We’ve had people come with a friend and decide to get one too. It’s all just enjoyable to witness.
What will the next few years look like?
If I’m not dead, I should still be tattooing. Tattooing is usually a man’s thing, but we have more women like me doing it now. I dream of owning my own studio. I love working with my partner, but who knows where he’d be five years from now? People get married, grow up and their ideals change. He gave me my best gift. Fun fact: What tattoo was I actually planning to get? I still haven’t got it. It’s supposed to be a cat drinking wine. Now, it’s a running joke between us.
You could tattoo anything right now. What would it be?